Steve Harvey: One of America's biggest comedians talks candidly about his mistakes and the grace of God
Life hasn’t always been rosy for the larger-than-life celebrity. Steve Harvey says his rags to riches story can only be understood through the eyes of faith
When you enter the name ‘Broderick Stephen Harvey’ into Google, the facts and figures on the first page of results are exactly what you’d expect to read about one of the world’s most successful entertainers. The 63-year-old, better known simply as Steve Harvey, is lauded for his role hosting one of America’s longest running gameshows, Family Feud (the show that has sparked multiple regional adaptations, including the UK’s Family Fortunes). The comedian has also won several Emmys and is worth a reported $160m. But what you don’t get from the search engine is an insight into what makes the man tick, and the reasons for his success.
As I spent an hour with Harvey, the words of CS Lewis kept coming to mind: “God can’t give us peace and happiness apart from himself because there is no such thing." That's a lesson Harvey has learned the hard way.
By his own admission Harvey “messed up” his 20s, leaving behind the faith taught to him by his mother, who was a Sunday school teacher.
He describes quitting his job in pursuit of a career in stand-up comedy as a “leap of faith”. It landed him homeless for three years, living in his car, travelling the length and breadth of the USA searching for gigs. Eventually his big break came. But success is a double-edged sword, and it would take him down a path away from the values of his childhood. It was many years before he rediscovered that the God he'd turned his back on was waiting with open arms.
Those of us who perform on stage to large audiences know there is a mental switch you can flick when it's time to ‘perform’. We also understand that when it comes to interviews, our job is often to promote and ‘talk up’ our latest project, whether it be a TV show, album or book. Performers know the pressure is on them to sell, sell, sell. In preparing for our interview, I confess I expected Harvey to be fully in ‘performer’ mode. I was wrong. In opening up his home, speaking to me for 30 minutes longer than his people had allocated us, and even sharing his failings (without any prompting from me), Harvey bucked the trend of celebrity interviews. He wasn’t desperate to promote himself or dominate the conversation. Instead, he was refreshingly honest about his personal life as we discussed huge topics including race, identity and the grace of God.
What have been the key turning points in your journey to faith?
I got saved when I was 16 years old, but when I went to college, I backslid and I got all off track. I went to college, man, and lost my mind: I could stay out at night, there were girls, I could eat what I wanted to eat.
There was a girl in college named Ida Washington who said: “Steve, you don’t even belong here. You something special, this place has nothing to offer you.” She was 100 per cent correct. I had no business in college. There’s not a course that they offer at a university that can get me to where I am today. That was a critical point for me.
I wanted to be something special in the comedy world. I did not see any way that could happen. But striking out and quitting my job was the first turning point for me. That was the ultimate show of faith: I’m going to walk away from my job to pursue something that I really don’t see no way it can happen, but I just believed so hard that it was meant for me.
There must have been a lot of people saying: ‘You’re crazy, Steve.’
Look, man, my mother was a Sunday school teacher. She didn’t even support this. My sisters and brothers thought I was crazy. The only person that supported my decision was my father. When I told him I was going to quit the very thing he had always told me to have – which was a job – and that I was gonna go chase my dreams, he said: “Boy, go ahead.” He said: “You goin’ have to scuffle, but if you think you can do it...I wish I would have the courage to do that.”
You talk about living in your car for years and pushing through adversity. There must have been something of the power of God that was carrying you, even when you didn’t know it. When did you become aware of that power?
I was so lost, man. I stopped talking to God about my decisions. I was just doing what I wanted to do. When I was homeless and living in the car, God kept tapping me on the shoulder and kept speaking tome, saying: “I’m still with you, man. You ain’t paying me no attention, but I’m paying you attention, because I got something for you. You’re not confiding in me any more. You’re not even talking to me on a regular basis no more, but I still love you.”
When I turned to find him again, it wasn’t hard because he was always there. So in my homelessness, I started going: “OK, God, what you want me to do?" And he said: “You’re doing it. I just want you to talk to me.” See, what I learned about Christianity was that God don’t require you to be perfect. You’re not going to be. No one is, but he does require you to be consistent. He says: “At least talk to me. When you slip and fall and you get off track, man, can you just at least still talk to me? I got this thing called grace for you, man.”
But how do you know his voice? How do you know it’s him speaking, and not yourself?
Because my mother used to say it to me. And then a minister named Bishop Kenneth Ulmer taught it to me: “God’s voice has no sin in it.”
So when people come up to me and say: “God told me to come down here and straighten you out...” I say: “No, God, never told you to do that.” God will never tell you to do wrong. Or when people claim God told them to sleep with someone [who isn’t their husband or wife] – I say: “God didn't tell you that. You did that yourself. That was your decision, don’t put that on the Lord!” Clearly he got some rules set in place about that, but he got grace and mercy because we make mistakes.
That’s what kept me going in those pivotal moments, because when I wanted to quit, and I was just sitting on the toilet crying, clear as a bell he said: “If you don’t quit, I'm gonna take you places you never dreamed you’d go.”
You’ve been very determined in building your business and pushing forward professionally, but at what point in your life were you able to just sit back and enjoy the moment?
I’m gonna be honest with you, man. I didn’t really start enjoying my life and enjoying some of my accomplishments until about 13 years ago. It took me a long time to really understand how to enjoy the journey, because I kept making the mistake of equating the arrival at the goal with the reward. Everything was work until I accomplished the goal. I had to learn there's joy in the journey and that in the process you got to stop and enjoy yourself.
I’d love to be a billionaire. I know that's my goal. I ain’t even close to a billion, but I’ve finally learned how to enjoy the process.
You must have heard the phrase ‘enjoy the journey’ in the past, but what made it possible for you to actually believe it and live that way?
Faith comes through hearing, not through having heard. I had heard all of this stuff before, but you gotta hear it at a particular time for it to sink in and matter to you.
People get mad at Joel Osteen for telling the same stories over and over again in his sermons. I tell people: "He does that because you didn’t get it the first time. And you still don’t get it! But one of these times he’s going to tell it to you at a particular moment in your life and it's going to click.”
You’re launching Family Feud in Africa. What has the experience been like?
As an African American, coming to Africa is like going back home to a place you’ve never been. See, my grandfather was a slave until he was twelve years old. That’s my background. When I went to the slave castles in Ghana, I could not stop crying. I fell on my knees in the slave castle, and my oldest son was next to me, and he fell next to me, and we couldn’t get up. I knew then that one of my ancestors had been in that room.
The next thing about being on the continent that made me feel like I've never felt before was, for the first time in my life, I was not a minority. I woke up every day in Africa so happy because I didn’t have to deal with my blackness. I said: “Wow, this is what white folks feel. This is cool! They get to wake up every day and not be in the minority.” My spirit was rejuvenated.
I said to myself: “I want to come over here and do Family Feud in Africa.” But I was told no one goes to Africa to produce television shows. They don’t know how to sprinkle the Hollywood dust on it. I said: “What are you all talking about? I’ve been over there. I’ve been in their TV stations. They look just like ours. The lighting people are even better than the ones in the US because they know how to light black people.”
So I bought the international rights and we’re now the number one show in South Africa and the number one show in Ghana. That’s because, you know, God gives me favour, man. God gives me unmerited favour and grace. I don't even deserve all he does for me, but he gives it to me. People at my church used to sing: “All I want is a little more grace, a little more grace.” I didn’t understand that growing up, but I sure get it now.
There’s so much I want to ask you about that, and how you convey these lessons to your children, but we’re out of time, so let's talk about the current projects you’re working on...
...Woah hold on, I'm going to give that to you, because what you're driving at is important. Talking to your children, as a man of faith is difficult because they don't hear you right away. Every parent struggles with the same thing. Your kids think: “Ah, here comes Daddy again. He always got a message and a lesson. I just want to do my thing.” And I say: “Well, your thing is going to get you in trouble.” And all I try to do is help my children head off some of the trouble. But you can’t! They got to go through life just like you do. They gotta make mistakes.
The trouble with talking to young people today is they’ve got this instrument called Google, and they think if they Google it, that means they know it. Every time we get into a debate, they get on their smartphone. I say: “You know something? Google got y’all stupid now. You think if you Google it, you know it.” My daughter and son look at me and say: “But Dad, you can Google anything.” I say: "No, you can’t.” They say: “Name one thing you can’t Google.” I say: “Experience.”
But, as a man of faith and a parent, sometimes you just have to let them go. They’ve got to get their head busted open before they get this message. I say: “So go ahead, knock yourself upside your head. When you get through with this stupid decision you made, I’m gonna be here for you. And I ain’t gonna say: ‘I told you so.’”
What is your message to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
When a young person who wants to be successful says: “Mr Harvey, I want to be you.” I say: “Well, you're not going to be me...but you can be who God made you to be. And that's going to be plenty sufficient, if you just get on the path that God has designed for you.”
And then you also got to realise that your timing and God’s timing are two different timings.
The problem with people coming to Christianity is they think that God wants everybody to be down there Bible thumping, sitting on the front row, joining the choir, the deacon board and the usher board. But he's got different paths for all of us. My job is not to sit inside of a church building. God made me international, he made me global. He put me on a platform where I can spread his message in ways that other people don’t have the opportunity to. I talk about God on Family Feud and I don’t care what you feel about it.
You speak to more people about God than most pastors do in a lifetime. We need Christians in entertainment, don’t we?
We need Christians that help the layman understand that this is not a perfect walk, that you’re not going to be perfect. Nor is it necessary to be perfect. Like I tell everybody all the time, I’m an imperfect soldier for Christ. That’s what I am. The keyword is imperfect.
My mission is for you to understand that you can be a flawed human being, with a history of mistakes, that you can flunk out of school, that you can be on your second or third marriage, that you can lose everything you’ve ever owned, that you can be homeless and completely done, and God will pick you right back up, dust you off and let you try it again.
I’m not telling nobody to follow me and watch my walk. My walk ain’t perfect. See, I still got some stuff, man, I’m telling you. I don’t really do good with some things.
I’ve heard you say before: ‘I’m a cussing Christian.’
Yeah, I’m just honest about it.
Christianity has got some rules that I think are a little bit stringent. You know, “turn the other cheek”? I struggle with the “love your enemy” thing, I really do. I ain’t figured that one out. That’s the flawed side of me, but I’m working on it.
What would you say to 20-year-old Steve Harvey?
The average person blows their 20s. It’s when we lay a foundation and we don’t even realise it, so I try to get kids at a younger age to realise what I didn't see. I made so many mistakes in my 20s. I didn’t have a clear direction in life. I had lost my place and walked away from God.
If I could go back, I would tell myself to take a little more time to seek wise counsel because everything you do in your 20s will have a profound effect on your 30s and the things you don’t correct in your 30s you will end up fixing in your 40s. And, Lord have mercy, you’re in a tailspin if you’re at 40 and you don’t know the way. And if you get to 50 and you ain’t there, you’ve got to realise you’ve lived longer than you’ve got left.
That’s what I’ve told my children. I want to grab all of them and just shake them: “I told y’all not to do these things in your 20s...” But they OK. My kids ain’t in trouble or staying in jail. My sons ain’t got no girl pregnant yet, praise God. None of my daughters have showed up with some children without being married. I try to work hard on that. I threaten most boys. Usually I can get rid of them. ’Cos she’s still my little princess, I don’t care what you think.”
To hear the full interview, listen to The Profile podcast.